It was part of the Saturday morning ritual, every Saturday morning immediately following services at shul virtually the entire congregation would walk over to Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Jack’s apartment for her famous potato kugel. From the time I was very young I remember the warmth of her personality and the inviting smell of her kitchen, the men and women waiting to be served and the reverential manner the guests affected as she heaped their plates with her delicious pudding. To a person, they all let out an uncontained “MMMM” when she opened the ovens and started to serve. It did not matter how many people showed up, if it was a rainy day and only 50 or so congregants showed up to prayer, or if it was a beautiful day and over 150 would show, Aunt Ruthie, which is the name everyone called her, always had enough potato kugel for however many came to her kitchen – and always in generous servings.
The tradition continued even after I turned 10 years old and we moved away from the Brooklyn neighborhood, for not too many years later Ruthie and Jack moved to the Queens area that we landed in. People in the new community somehow received word that Ruthie and Jack were coming and her famous kugel would be there waiting for them too. And the people showed up every Saturday.
Potato kugel was not the only food she cooked or served. She was an excellent cook and baker too and she always had large trays filled with her sponge cake that also received many an accolade. Her chicken, crisp on the outside soft and moist inside was also a treat. But it was the combination of hand rubbed potato, salt, pepper, oil and love that made her reputation across several communities as the kugel expert. Other good cooks in the neighborhood were measured against Aunt Ruthie. I many times heard husbands tell their wives “Your potato kugel is really great, just not as good as Aunt Ruthie’s.” I myself am guilty of saying the same to my wife. Most of the cooks would respond “No one can make a kugel like Ruthie does.” There were no hard feelings. It was just a fact. And it was, after all, everyone’s Aunt Ruthie.
When I started dating girls Uncle Jack gave me advice. In many ways he was the patriarch as both my grandfathers had already passed on. He told me how he knew that Ruthie was the one for him. “We were standing waiting for a bus on a very cold night after seeing a movie. We were with another couple. Everyone was freezing cold. But your Aunt Ruthie decided to dance with us all to stay warm. So we sang and danced until the bus came. I knew then she had the right personality for me.” They were married for over 50 years when he told me that story and to my eyes Aunt Ruthie still had the same youthful zest.
Aunt Ruthie’s potato kugel Saturday tradition carried on for a few more years, but as with all things, toward the end of her life the tradition came to a halt when she got ill. She was initially despondent about not being able to prepare the foods she loved making. She told me so herself. She was also just a bit upset that despite trying to teach her daughters, my mother, wife and countless others her recipe none had the exact touch she did. They were all close when they followed her directions but they were just not Aunt Ruthie. Sometimes food is more about the cooks’ personality than the recipe.
Aunt Ruthie’s funeral was conducted by a Rabbi from a different area who did not really know her. Her regular Rabbi, the one who had eaten her potato kugel many times was unavailable, I forget why. This substitute rabbi spoke about our Aunt Ruthie as if he knew her well. And for parts of the eulogy that he gave he was spot on in his description of this very special woman. She was energetic, warm, everyone loved her, and she was sweet just as he said. But he blew it – he never tasted her kugel. The rabbi said “Ruth was as sweet as her lokshen kugel, the noodle pudding that she made with such joy, such care”. The assembled mourners all groaned in unison. The rabbi froze for a second not knowing what happened. How could he know that her sweet disposition produced a spicy pudding that became a tradition in an entire neighborhood? And he caught himself, recovered, and continued on describing someone else’s sweet noodle pudding.